As recent attacks against religious liberty have demonstrated, it is increasingly difficult for Christians to speak truth in the public square. The temptation is to respond by withdrawing, turning your faith inward, and warming yourself in quiet communion with like-minded faithful. However, even if this were a legitimate response, the purveyors of societal change have demonstrated they will not be satisfied with acquiescence. In the end, they will demand cooperation, which is why the fight over religious freedom and conscience has become so toxic, so vitriolic, so quickly.

It’s easy to point to the culture wars and see them as a proxy for living out our faith. There are real dangers to a nation when the powers-that-be succumb to and embrace societal sin. But fighting these battles, while important, is not enough to spread the gospel. The church, having turned in to itself in so many places, no longer provides the moral yardstick by which people measure cultural norms. While we must continue to stand for truth and religious freedom, it is not enough to get us back to a path of societal renewal. We must also return to the basics of personal holiness and care for the physically, morally, and spiritually destitute.

When the tyranny and paganism of Rome was at its height, James assigned in his epistle a surprisingly simple role to the church. He wrote that a “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). In applying his words to today, we can and should continue our fight for truth in the public square, but only as long as we continue to live in holiness and demonstrate that Jesus lives within us by caring for those who are suffering, doing so with both love and in truth.

Saving by Serving

Who are the widows and orphans today? Perhaps the question is better stated, “Who most needs the church to stand in the gap for them?” The answer, whatever it is for your church, will likely make you uncomfortable. When we stray from our comfort zone in meeting the needs of the lost the Lord tends to use us most effectively. 

Journalist D. C. McAllister recently told her story of redemption, how 15 years ago she was a single, destitute mother with two young children and another on the way. She went to Planned Parenthood for an abortion but sat alone in the parking lot never getting out of her car. She writes that she realized she couldn’t “sacrifice my child on the altar of my own selfishness.” She drove away.

Impoverished, she applied for welfare but didn’t qualify because she was “able-bodied” despite being single with children who needed her care. With no place else to turn, she despaired. Then:

I went to a local church and asked for help. They gave it to me, no judgment, no condemnation. Only love. I sat in the pastor’s office and wept uncontrollably as I told him my story. He said it didn’t matter. God’s grace is sufficient. They would help me get through the next year or so until I was on my feet. They gave me counseling and accepted my daughter into their preschool so she could make friends. The women at the church took me under their wing, giving me clothes for my baby when she was born and encouraging me when I felt overwhelmed.

If the government had given me welfare, I doubt if I would have gone to the church for help. And if I hadn’t, I would never have benefited from their love and grace—and that’s what I needed most. I needed physical help, but I desperately needed spiritual, emotional help. And they were there for me. Loving me, supporting me, encouraging me, and counseling me. They saved me.

In reading her story, I was struck by both her bravery as well as her admission that she would have likely never gotten the help she truly needed if the government had given her a handout. The absence of government action enabled her to find healing. A stingy government program’s failure to help led her home.

Giving What Government Cannot

Starting in the 1930s with the New Deal, federal and state government supplanted the church as the central societal organ caring for the needy among us. In an effort to help the poor, the state inadvertently severed bonds that helped hold society together for centuries, one where faith and spiritual change were central in the healing of a broken, needy person.

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Public Economics found that “benevolent church spending fell by 30 percent in response to the New Deal, and that government spending can explain virtually all of the decline in charitable church activity observed between 1933 and 1939.” True, the government can spend more money on programs to help the poor. But money alone does not change the heart. In fact, direct governmental payments can crowd out the opportunity for spiritual change, for the holistic support so often needed to address the real roots of material poverty.

Holistic support only comes from the Christ-centered mission of a healthy, vibrant local church that can introduce the broken soul to the healing that only comes from Jesus. He provides the healing of heart and mind that fully enables the downtrodden to attain a state of health that enables them to fully exploit the opportunities God gives in a free society such as ours.

At the same time the government supplanted the church in benevolence, the church lost the maturing, sanctifying effect that the poor had on the church. As Arloa Sutter, leader of inner-city Chicago’s Breakthrough Urban Ministries, once told me, “The poor need us, but even more than that, we need the poor.” Those of us who have wealthy, unencumbered lives need to be pulled out of our comfort zones back into a world of grit and pain where once again we can see and experience Jesus as the only answer to the trials that assail us all.

And when we experience Jesus on this level, when we have experienced that revival of mind and soul that only he can bring, we cling to the Word of God as the only bedrock on which to renew a nation and people. 

In an era when government policy so often limits opportunity for the church to be the witness it was assigned to be, the church must be vigorous in reclaiming its vital societal role. With chronic overspending by the state and a burgeoning debt crisis, that job may be easier than we expect in the coming years. But even if the state fights the church for the role, it is essential that the church win that fight.

And when the church regains its central position as the place of first resort, again serving as Jesus’s hands and feet to those in need, it will again have both the platform and the moral authority to reclaim its place as the stick by which cultural norms are measured again.